As a public service, I will now reveal my secret plan never to get sucker-punched on eBay again.
I feel some duty to share this information because it comes from the hundreds of messages I've received about my two previous eBay columns -- many from snipers who, while admitting the situation sucks, were happy to share what they have learned.
"eBay forced me to become a sniper," was the tone of many of these e-mails. They didn't like having to become "pros" in the eBay "game" but said it's necessary if you want to "win." This seems to make eBay the hot action sport for couch potatoes.
How did we live before the Internet made all this possible?
I will now share the mainstream of the advice I have received. Follow this advice and you will win more auctions and pay fairer prices. The downside is you really must be online when the auction ends. And the more people who do this, the less effective these tactics become.
Note: This is the point in the column when a really evil columnist would attempt to regain the upper hand by telling you he never really got beat by the snipers in the first place and did this all either to a) learn advanced sniping technique, or b) just stir the readers. But I, as several of you pointed out, am not that cunning.
1. Never put in an early proxy! Don't be a fool, like I was, and enter a proxy bid early in the battle. The conventional wisdom is early proxying only results in higher prices.
2. Know what an item is worth. Set a maximum for yourself. Research previous auctions and other sources of information to determine what is a fair price. Then decide what is the top dollar you'll pay.
3. Never put in an early proxy for this amount. Why? Because if you bid on multiple items you certainly won't get all of them -- but if you do, your potential exposure could be bigger than your pocketbook. This works against setting a few $1,000 proxies on $10 items just to make sure you win. Not to mention what happens if someone (like the seller) catches wind of this and drives you up just to raise the price.
4. Watch the item. Keep an eye on the items that interest you, but never bid. Don't do anything that might create interest in the item. Let the early-bidding stooges be asleep when you win the auction.
5. You must be there at the end. I am convinced that sniping is the only way to win in the environment eBay has created. Not sniping makes you a sucker.
I think this is bad for eBay, but that's eBay's problem. It also means you need a good alarm clock and calendar to keep track of where to be and when to make those final winning bids. I am vaguely aware of software that will automate this process, but my correspondents didn't consider it nearly as effective as doing the work yourself, in person, at closing. This might involve a last-second proxy.
6. Delayed closings might be a good thing. There are some auctions that automatically delay the closing until 10 minutes have passed without a new high bid.
My new sniper friends were divided on this. Most didn't seem to like the last-minute frenzy before the close, which added a large amount of randomness to the outcome. Automatically delaying closes would make the process a little more civil, most said. This is probably a good idea, based on the arguments I've seen.
I have not spent any time as a sniper, so I am merely reporting what I have been told. I do not know, for example, how eBay's system response time and other factors might affect the effectiveness of a last-second proxy vs. a last-second fixed bid.
7. eBay might consider sealed-bid auctions. Sealed bids would end all this sniping stuff and might be a way to level the playing field. Or maybe not. It is probably worth a try. It would encourage people to bid at their leisure, which sniping kills.
I appreciate all the comments I have received. Especially the friendly ones -- whether you agreed with me or not. I did not appreciate the ones telling me that everything was fine because people who proxy their highest bid imaginable don't lose so often. But they, as I have learned, are also suckers and force up prices unnecessarily by taking on all comers with a "now beat this" response from the proxy.
Like I said, I am not terribly interested in having to be online at specific moments to play the auction game. It's like one reader asked me: "Isn't this what the Internet was supposed to avoid?"